Review: Ars Imago Lab Box (For the New Film Shooter)

The Ars Imago Lab Box is how the new film photographer can get into the analog world much easier.

When the Lab Box arrived in the mail, I’ll admit to being apprehensive about the contents of the anonymous mailing box. Having backed many Kickstarter projects over the years, I was well aware that the products can run the gamut from barely cobbled together homebrew items to well-polished products ready for any store’s shelves. Often you’re unlikely to know which you’ve backed until the product arrives months (or sometimes years) later. However, my initial wariness was thankfully unfounded. The packaging was not only polished and professional but had the air of a higher-end item.

With the renewed interest in film photography in recent years, a new generation of film-curious shooters are picking up film cameras and discovering the beauty and the limitations of shooting analog. You quickly learn there’s a whole world of darkrooms and funny-smelling chemistry out there that can solve this, but most people just don’t have a light-tight space to load film into a development tank, which for many people kills the dream right there. Sure, there’s “dark bags” to load in, and for some that works, but when I first caught wind of Ars-Imago and their Lab Box it appeared someone was finally going to tackle this issue and make home development finally simple for the average film photographer. And you’re bound to be amazed at how it held up.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Loadable in daylight
  • Compact size
  • Dual format (135, 120)

Cons

  • Manual winding with a small knob (there’s an optional crank accessory to address this)
  • Only 135 and 120 supported right now

Ergonomics

Inside the slick outer packaging was a bevy of parts in small plastic bags that, in some cases, were not immediately identifiable. The manufacturer helpfully provides a small assembly guide on the bag before I even cracked the instruction manual and even provides a QR code link to a video guide for assembly if a more visual walkthrough is up your alley.

At its heart, the Lab Box is just what it says on the label: a box. Inside they manage to reduce what is a somewhat complicated loading process to a very easy to understand and follow instruction list. While it may look intimidating when you first look inside, I expect its users will easily become comfortable with loading it after only a roll or two.

One of the more interesting features is the ability to switch the loading side of the box from 135 to 120 formats ‘modules’ for added flexibility. This clever addition should cover most shooters’ needs, since those formats are the most common. But, this leaves 110, 127, and 4×5 shooters out of the game for using this product unless Ars-Imago chooses to release other format modules at a later time. Thankfully, the flexibility of the design means at least other roll film formats should be possible to implement down the road, although the small size of the box means 4×5 would likely be impossible.

Build Quality

Setting up the Lab Box is simple. I didn’t need the videos as the parts proved simple to assemble, though one bit of the film guide assembly had a tiny bit of injection molding flashing that I had to trim before the rod the parts fit into would go through the hole as designed.

The Lab box is built from injection-molded plastics and has a comforting weight that counteracts the potential cheap plastic feel it could easily have had. The parts all assemble smoothly and securely with snap-together tabs that hold the lid on tightly even with brisk agitation, lending confidence that its construction is built to last. It feels solid and I believe it could easily handle being tossed into a bag for travel or knocked off a counter without too much worry about damage. Its build quality feels similar to the ubiquitous Paterson or Jobo processing tanks. The distinctive orange and black design is striking and a fun touch that adds to the notion the designers invested a reasonable amount of thought into every aspect of the unit as a whole.

The exception to this is the winding knob which uses a very simplistic locking ‘bar’ mechanism that is easy to catch as you use it to rotate the film spool. I could potentially see this leading to breakage down the road or light and chemistry leaks if it came off during use.

Ease of Use

I have shot a lot of films, and spend a lot of time in the dark fiddling film onto development reels, so I would consider myself a pro at the process. When I’m busiest it’s not uncommon for me to be loading spools in the dark every day. Despite owning semi-automatic development machines, the features displayed in this tiny little tank on Kickstarter were intriguing. It can be loaded in daylight, and you don’t have to directly fiddle around with the spools in the dark. This is fantastic as it removes the two biggest struggles for a starry-eyed, new film photographer’s dreams of home development, and empowers them to take control of their own development process.

Use with 35mm Film

Loading 35mm film into the box was refreshingly simple; you cut the end of the leader off square, insert the canister into the slot provided for it, and run the film under the cutting rollers before clipping the film to the spool’s long plastic tongue. After that, you close the orange cover and the box is light-tight. You then turn the knob on the side to wind the film into the tank until you feel the tension that means it has reached the end. Then, you simply push the grey film cutting lever which will separate the film from its canister with a satisfying ‘snick’, give it another couple winds to pull the tail of the film onto the spool, and you’re ready to begin processing.

If you’ve processed film before the rest will be familiar to you: the monotonous pouring in and out of chemistry was the same as any other tank would be and was comfortable and easy. I noticed the light traps where you pour in the chemistry feed the liquid in somewhat slowly, but it was no issue at all to fill the box. I opted to develop with continuous agitation, which needs less chemistry to process, however, this turned out to be somewhat of a wrist numbing exercise. Constantly turning the knob on the side was a bit harsh compared to only needing to agitate every 30 seconds to a minute if I’d used more chemistry. The optional crank accessory would very likely make this easier, and the company’s FAQ mentions they may offer a motorized agitation device in the future to save your wrists from this brutal exercise.

Use with 120 Film

After running the 35mm film, I was eager to try 120 film, after all 35mm film is in a light-tight canister but 120 is not, and I was curious to see the daylight loading features of the 120 back. The company solves this by a clever system of using the film’s backing paper to pull the film into a light-tight compartment, leaving about one inch of film exposed to light on the end, which you can safely clip to the spool loading tongue. This appeared to work brilliantly until the film unexpectedly got stuck as it moved towards the spool, necessitating my taking the tank into the dark to attempt to unjam it blindly. It turned out that the film had a very pronounced curve to it from being fairly expired and it would not feed straight. If the roll had been fresh, I expect that would not have happened, but if you’re a frequent shooter of expired 120 film this is certainly something to look out for.

Conclusions

All in all, the system works very well for a fairly simple film developing tank and certainly has features that make it quite a bit more attractive than standard development tanks for both beginners and seasoned film shooters. It’s not without its small quirks, but you’ll quickly become comfortable with how it works as it becomes your main development tank.